Sunday, January 02, 2011

Comfort and joy

On the day after Christmas, my cousin invited me to a local evangelical church. I went with her, since I had never been to one. My cousin is the only serious Christian in that branch of the family, and this was a seriously Christian place. (Praise music - whoa.)

I found the whole experience unsettling, and I finally realized what it was: there were no extras. Christmas was mentioned in the sermon, but other than that it might have been any Sunday of the year. There was no Christmas music. No decorations. The scriptural reading wasn't even about the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (that traditional day-after-Christmas downer). It was just 90 minutes of praising Jesus, with coffee afterwards.

I'm not a believer, but I crave religion. The church has developed a lot of pageantry over the years, and I love it. The saints, angels, and a cast of other characters. The seasons of the church calendar, patterning the year. The music. The sensual stimulation: architecture, the taste of the bread and wine, the scent of candles and incense (depending on how high church you get). The sense of drama: the crack of the wafer held above the priest's head for all to see, or the extinguishing of candles to leave the congregation in total darkness at Tenebrae. It's satisfying in the way Greek myth and fairy tales are satisfying. Folk traditions stay around because people crave them. Revels has figured this out.

Why, I wondered, is this stuff so important to me? And then I remembered stereotype threat: women and racial minorities do better on tests if they hear or write affirmations about themselves before the test, and worse if they're told that their group does poorly at such tests. It's subconscious - you don't need to believe what you're told in order for it to affect your performance. Just hearing it is enough.

I used to attend Quaker meeting with a woman who started many of her messages with, "The story I tell myself is . . ." She could acknowledge her religious beliefs as stories, yet still find them deeply meaningful. Even though I don't literally believe what I'm told, it helps me to hear the stories. Tradition says that the universe is ordered. It says our actions are meaningful. It says there is someone looking out for us. Some part of me needs to hear that, touch that, taste that.

1 comment:

Lucas Sanders said...

I hope and expect you actually do believe that your actions are meaningful...

The jump to the stereotype threat paragraph is a little abrupt, but I think I followed your meaning correctly. In any event, this is a very good, concise explanation of why I belong to a liturgical church — thanks as always!